When Wisconsin immigrant rights activists from the group Voces de la Frontera and their allies from the civil rights and labor rights movements confronted members of the state legislature's Joint Finance Committee Thursday, they did so by quoting from a statement written by the son of an immigrant.
Radical in language and character, challenging to the powers that be, it declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson, the son of an English-born mother and the author of the Declaration of Independence, was not the only American president with a foreign-born parent. Andrew Jackson’s mother and father came from Ireland. And James Buchanan, Chester Arthur, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover and Barack Obama were all born into immigrant families where the mother or father had come to America from another land.
The American experiment has from the beginning been defined by immigrants and their children. Their contributions make this country what it is – and what it might yet be.
We devalue them at our peril.
Sincerely patriotic Americans, be they recent immigrants or the descendants of the religious refugees who booked passage on the Mayflower, understand this. And they are willing to defend the rights of immigrants because they know that these are precisely the rights that Jefferson referenced in his declaration.
So it was that Wisconsinites of many backgrounds and generations challenge members of the Joint Finance Committee when the legislators prepared to act on Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to slash close to $1 billion in education funding and on a scheme to bar immigrant children from paying in-state tuition when they are accepted as students at Wisconsin’s institutions of higher learning.
In a statement addressed to committee co-chairs, state Senator Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and state Assemblyman Robin Vos, R-Burlington, the activists who protested the cruel and discriminatory agenda of the Walker administration and its legislative allies warned that, “You are destroying the American dream for working-class and immigrant children in our state.”
Vos repeatedly tried to silence the activists who packed the hearing room and attempted to read Jefferson's words to the committee. Finally, the committee co-chair ordered roughly 30 citizens to be removed from the hearing. Two of the nonviolent protesters were arrested.
Other activists stayed into the evening, voicing objections as the committee endorsed the Walker agenda -- including an assault on the collective bargaining rights of public-safety workers -- on party-line votes.
It was not just the Jeffersonian intervention that unsettled Vos and his fellow Tories.
It was the fact that the citizens who were petitioning for the redress of grievances confronted the logical fallacy of the push to Walker, Vos, Darling and their colleagues to deny many of Wisconsin’s best-and-brightest students an opportunity to pay money to the state.
“You justify your actions claiming there is not enough money. You justify your actions claiming immigrant children are taking limited resources from U.S. citizen children,” the statement explained. “These claims are unfounded. You refuse to implement a fair taxation (rate) for large corporations and the wealthy that would address the budget gap – (a gap) that is not even that big. You are willing to deny opportunity to immigrant youth who are struggling to study hard to achieve college tuition and pay their own way.”
The language was blunt: “Slashing funds for public education and removing the ability for undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates is mean-spirited and immoral.”
That is an appropriate statement.
Equally appropriate was the willingness of those who confronted the legislators in an urgent and unapologetic manner that included civil disobedience.
That son of an immigrant, Thomas Jefferson, explained it well when he argued that because the powers that be had “been deaf to the voice of justice,” it was necessary to push back.
That pushback won’t take the form of the revolution Jefferson joined.
But it is taking the form of the civil rights revolution that A. Philip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rev. Martin Luther called into being – a movement that proudly employed the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience.
And it will take the form of a electoral revolution when recall elections begin to remove the modern Tories who refuse to respect the will of the people.